Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Green Bay Symphony, singers end season with luster


PHOTO: Donato Cabrera is music director and conductor of the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra. GBSO image

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – When Donato Cabrera leads the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra, the music is not over until he strikes a picturesque image. Donato Cabrera owns an arsenal of colorful endings. He’s entertaining to watch on the podium in the first place with his flow of gestures, urgings and body actions that sometimes find him lifting from his feet. But the endings – ah, the endings – you’re bound to see Donato Cabrera and everybody in the orchestra stop, at once, with Donato Cabrera frozen in a statuesque split second. This split-second look is different each time. Take Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony,” which the orchestra performed Saturday night, April 12, in Cofrin Family Hall of the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts. The famous, massive work is made up of four movements, and this is the freeze frame of Donato Cabrera at the end of each:

- One: Upper cut. Like a boxer swinging from the heels, Donato Cabrera “clocks” an imaginary opponent on the jaw with the image ending with his right hand held high, baton pointing to the ceiling. The movement often is turbulent, battle-like, and ends on one of its bolts of energy.

- Two: Right hook. Again like a boxer, Donato Cabrera swings his baton hand across his body from the side, delivering a punch, ending with a turn of his body. The second movement opens with notes stepping toward the timpani and its definitive “dad um.” My imagination saw Beethoven’s music defining different human personalities, sometimes with the music shifting from one to the other, but sometimes with all the personalities in front of me at once. Again, the music moves to an ending of power.

- Three: Latch. Reaching up above his head, Donato Cabrera brings his empty left hand, fingers slowly closing, toward his baton hand, with the strains of the orchestra fading slowly toward a soft ending. The image is of a latch being carefully closed. In the passive third movement, muscle and sinew are put aside for cerebral ventures. Beethoven is relaxed, peaceful.

- Four: Strike three curveball. Like an ace relief pitcher in baseball, Donato Cabrera throws a 3-2, two-out, bottom of the ninth, bases-loaded pitch hard across his body and catches the batter, a formidable slugger, locked in place, looking at STEEERIKE THREE! – only instead of an empty hand there’s a baton stopped dead. This fourth movement was so much the event’s raison d'être – reason to be – in title of the concert (“Ode to Joy”) and size of the chorus (169 singers) to help pull off all the excitement surrounding the “ode to joy” theme that Beethoven addresses from numerous angles. That starts with its stealthy, quiet arrival in the cellos and leads to huge bursts from the orchestra and chorus, with four soloists mustering more mustard.

INTERRUPTION! STOP RIGHT HERE! It’s Saturday night, and the fourth movement has been churning toward an important moment, the momentous expression of the baritone soloist. Kelly Markgraf is marvelous, lifting big, powerhouse notes to the last row in the balcony, where I’m seated. At the exact second of Markgraf’s first wondrous note, some guy in the second to the last row, to my left, turns on his cell phone. An illuminated screen appears in my peripheral vision – and in the straight-ahead vision of the people seated behind him. This sixtysomething guy chose that moment to distract others with a bit of peering and texting. He was rude. He was selfish. He was stupid. Three of my grandchildren are not allowed to say “stupid” because it’s a bad word. I can. Hey, fella, you’re stupid.

So anyway, the fourth movement and the performance end. Donato Cabrera puts down his baton and claps his hands together hard and fast. Just once. He’s saying to himself something like, “GOT IT” or “NAILED IT.” That means everybody – himself, the orchestra, the singers. It is a really, really good performance.

By the time the “Ninth Symphony” came along, Beethoven could scratch his chin and say, in German, “Let’s see, for this symphony, I’m going to use an extra-large chorus with four soloists. The chorus is going to be dominated by males. The soloists will sing in a few passages, mostly briefly. And, oh yes, the singers will sing only in the fourth movement, and well along after the movement has started.” Somebody else had to say something like, “Yeah sure, works for me.”



Johannes Brahms: “Rhapsody for Alto Voice, Male Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 53”

Ludwig van Beethoven: “Symphony No. 9 in D minor for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Tenor and Baritone, Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 125 ‘Choral’”


Donato Cabrera, conductor; Courtney Sherman, soprano; Kelley O’Connor, mezz-soprano; Steven Paul Spears, tenor; Kelly Markgraf, baritone; Dudley Birder Chorale of St. Norbert College, Dudley Birder, director; St. Norbert College Chamber Singers, Sarah Parks, director; St. Norbert College Men’s Chorus, Michael Rosewall, director


For this concert, Donato Cabrera, the music director, made use of all the males in the chorus to program Johannes Brahms’ “Rhapsody” to open the concert. Economics/practicality met artistic opportunity to explore Brahms’ take on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s considerations of poem on a young man unbound from angst. Soloist Kelley O’Connor delved the figure’s earnest darkness that eventually gives way to relief and filled the hall with glorious, strong singing. The demanding performance was well met.

The orchestra ended its 100th season on a positive note (4½ stars out of 5) as Donato Cabrera worked his way through more of the Beethoven symphonies with his intended color and vigor.

DATES: Concerts for the 101st season are scheduled Sept. 13, Dec. 19-20, Jan. 10, Feb. 14 and April 11.

THE VENUE: Cofrin Family Hall is one of three performance spaces within the Edward W. Weidner Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. At its maximum capacity setup, the hall seats 2,021 over its three levels of maple-and-burgundy seats. For orchestra concerts such as Saturday’s, two sets of lifts are brought up (seats removed) to extend the stage into the audience space. The orchestra then plays more inside the hall. Opened Jan. 15, 1993, the hall’s space was built to adapt to the needs of orchestra concerts, operas, musicals, plays and organ, band and choral concerts. For acoustical properties, wood is emphasized on the seats, mezzanine and balcony surfaces and walls near the stage. Many surfaces are curved to help shape the sound. Wood is featured for an aesthetic reason, too – a “from here” aura of woodsy Northeastern Wisconsin.

THE PEOPLE: The name Cofrin relates in great degree to A.E. Cofrin, founder of Fort Howard Paper Co., and his son, Dr. David A. Cofrin, who was instrumental in building the Weidner Center through multi-million-dollar donations. A friendship developed between David A. Cofrin (1921-2009) and Edward W. Weidner (1921-2007), the beloved founding chancellor of UWGB. Weidner arrived when there were no buildings on the present-day campus on rolling hills near the shore of Green Bay. His interests ranged from academia to birding to sports. He loved building projects. It was in his blood. He guided the building of the Weidner Center, so named from early on in construction. Weidner admitted his eyes welled once when driving to a performance and seeing a green sign along the highway: WEIDNER CENTER.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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